Regressions certainly feel real if you’re experiencing sleep challenges with your baby or toddler.
But even though the concept is meant to help explain problems, it can be a source of questioning or guilt for many parents.
There’s something we really, really need to unpack here. Ready? I promise there’s a gem.
Legit sleep transitions
Biologically, an infant’s sleep patterns shift around 4 months to become more like an adult’s. This is commonly called “the 4 month sleep regression,” and it’s a legit physiological change.
But what about all the others?
How stress and old habits relate to baby sleep regressions
Whenever your baby reaches a new stage of development in any area, you might see old habits return, such as reverting to one side when learning a new movement.
You can see this in yourself too. When you’re under stress, how does your body respond—do you have habits like tensing your shoulders or holding your breath? Keep in mind, “stress” can mean difficult emotional strain. But it can also come from something neutral, like teething or that next new motor skill—things that are unavoidable and are neither positive nor negative.
The #1 reason behind baby and toddler sleep troubles is pent up feelings or unprocessed experiences. That is, stress! This might be new stress from a highly stimulating day; or it might be big feelings from a past experience that hasn’t been processed yet.
You may have found that stress affects your own sleep. Same for your baby—if there’s something ‘on her mind,’ you may see some stress patterns while she tries to work through it, especially at new developmental stages.
In this case it’s more than figuring out how to use both sides in a new movement. At each new stage of development, your baby’s comprehension of the world grows—which also allows memories and feeling to surface more intensively.
So this time, the patterns your child falls into are about emotions, ingrained habits, the invisible currents that make up who we are, and sleep …because we can’t separate sleep from who we are or how we are.
When those feeling resurface but are not fully processed, they can turn into difficult sleep associations and are often assumed to be “sleep regressions.” You might see extended crying, night wakings, clinginess, or other issues.
But these challenges are actually your baby’s attempt to communicate and heal. Babies intuitively know that in order to sleep, they need to relax. And in order to relax? They need to work through what’s ‘on their mind,’ and they need our help to do so.
What does regression mean?
The word literally means a return to a former or less developed state, a return to an earlier stage of life, … or as a means of escaping present anxieties.
Now… combine this definition with the information about how babies work through and heal their experiences and big feelings. Does it match?
Why we need to transform the “sleep regression” movement
Sleep disruptions can absolutely feel like sleep has taken a few steps backwards, or regressed. While labeling these situations as sleep regressions is intended to help, I find it can be ginormously unhelpful, guilt inducing, and fear producing…
…if you happen to be the parent of a baby or toddler who is not sleeping.
The concept of regression has its place. But this word tends to be generously applied without information about why the problems are happening in the first place.
You see, the “regression” really means your baby is trying to move forward—not backward!
That 4 month transition? Biologically, your baby’s sleep patterns are ‘growing up.’ Is this “a return to a former or less developed state”?!
As for all the other times that feel like regressions, when I work with families, parents typically discover that what was labeled as a regression is actually Baby’s way of communicating that something’s up. What they need is to ‘tell us about it’ or help understanding something that happened.
The sleep problem began in wisdom—not in ignorance or total helplessness. When we feel our own stress patterns in our shoulders or breathing, it’s our body’s way of telling us to pay attention, slow down, and take care of ourselves so that we don’t take serious steps backwards in our health or our lives.
Likewise, when your child is having a difficult time, it’s an attempt to move on—to communicate, heal, and move forward—not backwards.
Are baby sleep regressions real? The challenges are, indeed. What’s behind them—that’s a different story. Trust your child’s wisdom. And know that your little one might need to have a good cry in your arms tonight.